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Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" captures the excesses and disillusionments of the 1970s.

By Mary Dickson

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Everything Chinese-born director Ang Lee touches turns to gold, but The Ice Storm is probably his best work yet. Set over a Thanksgiving weekend as two Connecticut families find themselves floundering in the backwash of the sexual revolution, Lee's film is a powerful study of both family dynamics and the hollow promise of sexual emancipation.

Lee shows an astonishing grasp of American society and family life. That an outsider can so perfectly capture the disillusionments and shattered trusts of a time, place and culture he himself never experienced is nothing short of amazing.

His view of the era is as crystal clear as the chilly ice that is the film's ever-present metaphor, from the icy blue tones to the foreboding tinkling of glass chimes, to the glass encased dining rooms, the icicles dangling from every tree and the sheets of ice coating windshields and roads. The chilly scenes he creates — inside and out — can't help but send a shiver down your spine and leave you longing for warmth. It's tricky emotional terrain, and Lee's touch is as delicate as the intricate ice crystals coating all of New Canaan, Connecticut.

The year of this ice age is 1973. Nixon's resignation is imminent. The rules have disappeared in both public and private life. Men and women are rethinking their roles and relationships. Adults dabble in substances legal and illegal. Promiscuity reigns. The grownups' behavior is mirrored in the games of their own children, who at 14, 15 and 16 haven't yet shed the baby fat, but are quickly shedding their own inhibitions to act on their blossoming hormonal urges.

For all ages, experimentation is an empty exercise. Their lives are skidding out of control, building with an uncontrollable force that parallels the coming ice storm and erupts in a chilling climax that engulfs them all, shattering the illusions of two generations in tragic, unforgettable ways.

Lee's masterfully executed film is based on the best-selling novel by Rick Moody, who modestly claims that the film is better than his book. That's high praise from an author, but Lee's skillful handling of the original source, aided by James Schamus' superb script, is deserving.

The film deftly weaves together the multi-layered story of two neighboring families — the Hoods and the Carvers. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and his wife Elena (Joan Allen) are, as Benjamin says, "on the verge of saying something to each other." But Elena, weary of her husband's clumsy lies, avoids confrontation with a simple, "don't start. It won't make for a pleasant evening." Elena has stopped talking, and Ben is having a sterile affair with Janey Hood (Sigourney Weaver), their cold next-door neighbor. Ben and Elena's 14-year-old-daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), is satisfying her own sexual curiosity with the Carver's two young sons. The Hoods' 16-year-old son Paul (Toby MacGuire), home from prep school for Thanksgiving, is trying to woo a schoolmate, who prefers his more-experienced friend.

The Ice Storm
Directed by
Ang Lee
Based on the novel by
Rick Moody
Starring
Kevin Kline
Joan Allen
Sigourney Weaver
Lee moves between these concurrent stories, showing the frustration, heartache and misunderstanding between parents and children, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends. As the film opens, Paul reads an apt line from his comic book about a family of superheroes: "The more power they have the more harm they can do. A family is like your own antimatter."

Lee delves into the dynamics of that antimatter by focusing on the details of indifference: the hurt of a single act of rejection as a husband's fingers instinctively curl and withdraw when his wife thwarts his advances; the sting of dismissal when a father who spends too much time on the job returns from a business trip and announces, "I'm back," only to be greeted by his son with "you were gone?" The look of disdain on a wife's face when her husband sits on their waterbed as she's trying to read.

Lee has a genuine compassion for Moody's characters, which makes each of their plights sympathetic. None of them can handle the shifting mores and expectations of a new era. Jane and Ben are as disenchanted with their affair as they are with their marriages. When Ben resorts to the trivialities of his golf game, Jane's no-nonsense reprimand is swift: "You're boring me, Ben. I already have a husband, I don't want another one." The ultimate blow comes when, recognizing the sheer banality of their affair, she leaves Ben in bed in his boxers, gets in her car and drives off.

Not only are Lee's insights into human behavior and relationships painstakingly accurate, but he so meticulously captures the confused mood of the era that it's sure to dredge up bittersweet memories for anyone who found themselves living those days. The sex is without context or meaning. It's just a game. When Jane catches young Wendy playing a game of "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours" with her son, her admonishment that "Your body is your temple" rings as hollow as Ben Hood's dismay when he catches his daughter with one of the Carver boys in the basement.

Ben knows how futile his protest knows is. In a heartbreaking scene, he picks his daughter up and carries her home. Despite her pretended worldliness, she finds comfort there. She is, as Ben so clearly sees, still a child.

Tenderness, romance and even desire are missing from the assorted couplings. All that freedom, all that searching, isn't making anyone happy. And it all backfires the night of The Ice Storm during a cocktail party where the adults play a game of their own — spouse-swapping for those who "dare or just don't care anymore." The best argument against the excesses of the 1970s becomes its sheer futility. But it takes a tragedy to drive home how hollow their supposed liberation really is.

In The Ice Storm's haunting epilogue, the icy blue tones give way to the warmth of a sun-soaked day as a badly shaken family stands together in the unspoken understanding that what really matters has been theirs all along — each other. It's a marvelous moment.


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